Friday, April 12, 2013

Adjusting To Occupation

Humans have an amazing capacity to adjust to many - not all - realities. Relatively few of the world's population have anywhere near the opportunities, access to quality health care and personal freedoms I have ... and have had for 75 years. Some of those advantages exist for the people I meet here, but most don't and even those who do live under conditions that would render me perpetually angry ... and, perhaps, prone to violence. What interests me is how they adjust and, in spite of it all ... cope.

Lydia Mushahwar
I had a good conversation last night with the young woman I have gotten to know over many stays at the Jerusalem Meridian and who takes such good care of me here. LYDIA MUSHAHWAR is in her early 20's, has a responsible position and is consistently cheerful. When I ask her how she copes with the conditions we've discussed many times, she tells me she has had her hopes raised so many times, only to find them unfulfilled (she didn't use the word betrayed, but it seemed just below the surface) that she decided it is worse than useless to expect things to change; better to decide to live as good a life as she can. "I read the Bible every night and I try very hard to be a good person" (Lydia is Greek Orthodox with a Jordanian father and an Italian mother; she prefers to go to the Latin Church). She did tell me the most painful moment in her life was when Israel built the wall down the middle of her street separating her from the girlfriend she grew up with and played with every day. When the wall was completed, they would go to the top of their buildings to wave to each other.

Lydia is strongly self-disciplined. She went to work at 17 and put herself through college, graduating in the top third of her class. If there were a large demonstration protesting Israeli policies, I doubt Lydia would be there. With some embarrassment, she said as much, knowing that I have participated with Palestinians in several. The one clue she gave at her discontent with "how things are" was when she said, "but when I marry and have children, I don't want them to have to live like this."

Moe and Elena Tahan
MOETAHAN AND HIS WIFE, ELENA, manage the restaurant at the corner of Salah E'din and Ibn Abu Taleb, right behind St. George's. Mo is one of those Palestinians who left for more opportunities in the U.S. but returned to help take care of his parents. They have a good-enough business here and both express gratitude to the American people whom they see as generous and kind. But Mo chafes at the conditions and acknowledges he sometimes gets depressed. He could use his Jerusalem ID to advantage, but to do so he would have to give up his American passport and he won't do that - though he acknowledges he cannot afford to go back to America and start over. Mo adjusts by working hard, raising his son, supplying his customers with food more nutritious "than what is served in America." But he pays a price.

Haroud Sandrouni
I have been visiting HAROUD SANDROUNI at his wonderful Armenian Art Center in the Old City on every trip here since I first met him in 2007. He comes from a distinguished family of craftsmen and artists whose history in Palestine stretches back to the early years of the twentieth century. Al Miller and I sat and talked with Mr. Sandrouni for a good hour (interrupted occasionally by customers purchasing beautiful objects). He told us  he was in fact not coping well and was, obviously, angry. The Christian population is small and the Armenian a tiny percentage of that. 87 Armenians are left in the Old City and 20 of those are priests - about whom Mr. Sandrouni has little good to say (like nothing). Israeli policies are aimed at discouraging non-Jews from remaining in Jerusalem. Everyone, he says, is concerned with their own survival (perhaps understandably) and is less willing to stand with each other.  Mr. Sandrouni's comments echo what I've heard from Jean Zaru and Estephan Salameh - the Occupation is shredding a a once strong and cohesive Palestinian culture.

Khitam Edelbi
I originally met KHITAM EDELBI through my friends Lael Stegall and Al Miller. Khitam spent time with Al at his wonderful theatre in Brunswick, Maine and later studied art therapy in Boston. It was when Lael came to celebrate Khitam's marriage in the fall of 2010 that the first symptoms of Lael's cancer surfaced. Lael had something in common with Khitam, an amazing resiliency, a sense of joy and purpose in life. Oh, we need so many more like them!

Al and I met Khitam for a late lunch Saturday following a teaching gig Khitam had that morning. Khitam is among the more outspoken regarding the insidious effect of Israeli policies and laws and the ineffectiveness of the Palestinian Authority in countering the oppression of Occupation. She is clearly angry. She is also clearly an (amazingly) positive force for good. "My work is my hope. My work with children and teachers, my family, the people I love ... I do get down, but not for long." One more observation about Khitam. She is one of 11 children. She said that if she needed them, all 10 would be there within three hours. The cohesive structure of her family system remains strong.

I have no picture of this fellow, but he was sitting next to us (Khitam, Al and me) at the Jerusalem Hotel dining room. Khitam recognized him as A VERY TALENTED MUSICIAN who plays drums (of a sort) on Friday nights; I recalled his face from an evening he was performing there a couple years ago.  She asked if his house had been demolished by the Israelis ... and he said "yes, it was".  "Did I hear that Jimmy Carter came to see you there?" "Yes, but we ended up talking more about music than the demolition."

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